Why less may be more for India and China

A conversation between India and China, driven by hard talk and finding shared interests, even if modest ones, may be amply rewarding

“Lower the expectations” might not seem a very ambitious prescription for the immediate future of India’s troubled relations with China. It may, however, be just the right tonic to guide the way forward, as both countries seek a new equilibrium after a major rupture in relations following the border crisis.

That was the consensus shared by the two sides at a Track-II dialogue held in early April, possibly the first of its kind to be held after the border crisis. This brought together former ambassadors and military officials from both sides, organised by the Ananta Aspen Centre in New Delhi and the China Reform Forum in Beijing, which is affiliated to the Central Party School.

For an example of more recent vintage, the holding of two “informal summits” in Wuhan in 2018 and in Mamallapuram near Chennai the following year, which were certainly valuable exercises in getting the leaders of both countries to engage with each other directly and in leading to two years of largely undisturbed peace on the borders, was seen as marking the start of another new promising era in ties, only to turn out to be another false dawn.

Rather than once again veer from high expectation to familiar disappointment, perhaps the search for a new equilibrium with China should instead be driven by modest goals, led by conversations driven by hard talk and self-interest, rather than lofty goals of partnership.

At the core

At the recent dialogue, the shared view was that key to arriving at this new, more realistic state of relations will be managing three issues — the boundary question, trade, and the increasing impact of third-party and multilateral engagements on the two-way relationship. On all three fronts, setting the sights on limited goals may end up paying rich dividends.

Also read | India, China agree to maintain stability on ground

Consider the boundary dispute. Ten months after the clash at Galwan Valley, which marked the worst violence on the border since 1967, both sides are nowhere near full de-escalation. Initial optimism of a quick end to the crisis, following disengagement on the north and south banks of Pangong Lake, the most thorny of the disputes in eastern Ladakh, has now given way to an apparent stalemate. The readouts from both sides after the eleventh round of talks between Corps Commanders on April 9 suggested as much, with no joint statement – for the first time since the sixth round in September – and no mention from the Chinese side of early disengagement.

At the Track-II dialogue, Chinese speakers, unsurprisingly, offered no clarity on what prompted the People’s Liberation Army’s mass mobilisation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) last summer and the hammer blow dealt to agreements that ensured decades of a carefully managed peace. Was the deployment tactical — an attempt to push back India from the LAC by stealth that subsequently backfired — or a strategic message? We are still none the wiser.

What the crisis did make clear is there is certainly no appetite in China at the moment for a final settlement of the boundary question. That is also the view of most Chinese experts, who suggest it is to be left for the next generation, which means a prolonged period of continued uncertainty on the borders.

The absence of a permanent peace does not, however, mean both countries are necessarily destined for conflict. What they do need, in the view of military planners of both sides, is small steps to restore a shattered trust. If China has made clear there is little likelihood of clarifying the LAC — a process that has been stalled for 19 years — one possible way forward is to, at least, clarify the most sensitive spots, and arrive at understandings, such as coordinated patrolling either by time or area. These are small steps that have, in the past, helped cool down the temperatures.

The view on trade

On the trade front, the view in Delhi has shifted remarkably from what was, in the first few years of the Narendra Modi government, an all-out courtship of China Inc. — as hard as it is to imagine now, Chinese billionaires from Alibaba’s Jack Ma to Wanda’s Wang Jianlin all received audiences with the Prime Minister on their India visits — to talk now of “decoupling”.

If the idea of roping in China as a major economic partner now seems premature in light of the many unresolved political problems, so is talk of a complete disengagement on trade. One only need look at the trade figures for a year that saw the biggest border crisis in decades. Trade reached $87.6 billion and China was India’s largest trading partner, with India importing $66.7 billion worth of machinery and medical equipment, among other goods, and exporting a record $20 billion to China, mostly ores to fill the appetite of China’s rebounding economy. Or, for that matter, at the prompt restoration of Chinese mobile phone company Vivo as the sponsor of India’s biggest cricket tournament after a suspension last year, even if the border crisis is nowhere near resolution.

Jettisoning all activity with China is neither realistic nor prudent. Instead, what is needed is a clear-headed, all-of-government approach that decides where both sides can cooperate — infrastructure that has no security implications is an obvious area, as is clean energy given China’s capacities on solar and wind, to name but two — and other areas where Delhi may find it needs to tread with caution, such as the roll-out of 5G. On 5G, too, the problem is often reductively framed as a China one, when what is needed is a policy framework that is not aimed at merely one country but protects India’s interests without handing over the keys to the kingdom to any outside player.

Finally, both sides need to have a clear conversation on how third parties and external engagement are an increasing factor. The Track-II dialogue made it clear how China is viewing relations with India through the prism of its relations with the United States that are its abiding priority. Beijing has increasingly hit out at what President Xi Jinping called “small circles” when he spoke to Davos, which has now become shorthand for U.S.-involved groupings including the Quad. India has its own grouses with China-involved “small circles” of which there are many, from the numerous small groupings in South Asia that China has convened over the past year, to certain multilateral efforts on Afghanistan that India has been kept out of.

Also read | China still ‘largest source of critical items’ for India

Focus on shared platforms

Rather than view every element of such engagements as a threat, that both sides would be better served having a conversation about what the red lines are was a shared view at the dialogue. Moreover, as relations stabilise, India and China could start injecting more energy into their own shared platforms such as BRICS, which, for instance, could come up with its own vaccine initiatives as the Quad has done. They could also revive their bilateral cooperation in Afghanistan, which began and ended after the Wuhan summit with a modest joint training programme for diplomats while more ambitious infrastructure projects that had once been imagined never took off.

As both sides chart a course forward after last year’s rupture in ties, they may find a conversation that is driven by hard talk and finding shared interests, even if modest ones, more rewarding than bearing misplaced expectations. As India and China go back to the drawing board, less may indeed be more.

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